Inverted Gear Blog

Purple Belt Purgatory Part II: Feeling the Itch and Showing the Grit

Question: I recently heard someone call purple belt “purple purgatory,” and it seems to fit. When you were a purple belt, did you start to question everything you do? Now that I'm teaching more, I'm really starting to question everything and sometimes I feel that I was a more confident teacher at blue belt. Is that something you experienced? Do you feel that purple belt is a trying period in jiu-jitsu?

Answer: In Part I of my response to this question, I observed that there are actually two questions in it: a question about dealing with purple belt purgatory in general and a question about the challenges of becoming a purple belt who teaches. I addressed the second question in Part I, and here, in Part II, I will address the first question: “When you were a purple belt, did you start to question everything you do? Do you feel that purple belt is a trying period in jiu-jitsu?”

The short answer to this question is: absolutely; I questioned everything and found purple belt trying. Just like I have at every belt and continue to do every time I stop to think about where I am relative to where I think I should be in terms of skill, leadership, and maturity.

I would not be me if I did not have a long answer to this question as well. This long answer involves the concept of the “seven-year itch,”1 which is the title of a 1952 play and 1955 film adaptation of the play. The title refers to the amount of time the protagonist and his wife have been married, as well as the fact that he is considering being unfaithful. The idea is that around the seven-year mark, married couples tend to feel the honeymoon has ended, and boredom, irritation, and dwindling connection may prompt them to consider divorce or extracurricular activities.2

About a year after I got my purple belt, I experienced my own jiu-jitsu seven-year itch. I had become increasingly disinterested in training, dreading going to class and being elsewhere in my mind when I did attend. I ended up turning my back on training completely for the better part of a year, instead doing things “normal” people do: happy hours, movies, jogging, sleeping in on weekends, spending time with family and friends who thought “rear naked choke” was something dirty. I liked it for a while. Eventually I was eager to get back together with jiu-jitsu, but for the time I was gone, I was gone.

Perhaps your own jiu-jitsu journey has become a bit itchy. Perhaps the Christmas-morning excitement that accompanied your every discovery from white through blue belt about where to place your foot or how to position your hip has given way to a sense of world-weariness or obligation. Your jiu-jitsu honeymoon may be over.

This, along with the awareness you are probably starting to experience as described in Part I of this response, can combine to create the purple belt purgatory you described in your question.

My friends Steve Bowers and Paul Miller run Main Line United BJJ, an academy in Ardmore, PA. It is a great place to train, and, if you are looking for motivation, it is also a great place to be a woman, because when you sit down in the Main Line United BJJ bathroom to do your business, you are confronted with this sign:

In addition to providing motivation, the sign is a reminder that neither purple belt purgatory, blue belt blues, nor any of those doubts and hesitations from white to black are isolated incidents: You are not alone.

It bears mentioning that if you are really disillusioned with jiu-jitsu, or if other life goals are competing with your training such that you really feel the need to take a break or stop altogether, then it is doubly fortunate that you are free to do what you want any old time, per the Rolling Stones. Make sure you ask yourself the tough questions about whether you still want to be doing this, and if the answer is no, honor that.

Now, what can you do if the answer is yes? The best solution for your itch just may be to get gritty.

Psychologist Angela Duckworth has written a book called Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. In it, she defines grit as “passion and perseverance for especially long-term goals,” arguing that excellence is not limited to those with natural talent but rather can be cultivated through a combination of interest, practice, purpose, and hope—grit. Many of her comments sound like they could be about the experience of training jiu-jitsu, particularly the times when the going gets tough. Her comments in an interview on Freakonomics Radio underscore the existence of the phenomenon we call purple-belt purgatory; indeed this phenomenon occurs in a wide variety of endeavors. She says,

“I interviewed Rowdy Gaines, the 1984 gold medalist in the 100-meter-freestyle representing the United States, and he estimates that in the years up to the Olympics where he won that gold medal, he swam equivalently around the world, right? Roughly 20,000 miles. And so I asked him, ‘Do you love practice?’ And he said, ‘Are you asking me if I love getting up at 4 in the morning, jumping into a cold pool, and swimming laps looking at a black line on the bottom, at the very edge of my physical ability where my lungs are screaming for oxygen and my arms feel like they’re about to fall off? No, I don’t, but I love the whole thing. You know, I have a passion for the whole sport.’”

The point being, we do not have to love every minute of what we do to pursue our passions. In fact, it is unlikely that we will. But if we do not love our passion overall, we will not make ourselves persevere when the going gets tough. You do not like feeling as if you are questioning everything you have learned in your purple belt-ness, and this is understandable. However, this is the price those of us with a passion pay for pursuing it. I can almost guarantee that this will not be the last time you have doubts or fears along your jiu-jitsu journey. The question is how you want to face those challenges. Are they something you do not want to deal with, or are they the shadow side of the thing you are passionate about? In the latter case, it may be time to answer the call of nature and then get gritty.

Good luck and thank you for the question!

About Valerie Worthington

Here, in no particular order, are some of the things that define me: parents who are psychologists, a childhood spent in the New Jersey suburbs except for a year my family spent in Germany, studying English literature and learning theory, always trying for the funny--not matter how self-deprecating, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, a martial art I have been training for almost 20 years. I travel a lot and enjoy snacks just as much. I am reasonably intelligent, but this is undercut by my love of irreverence and childish humor. I am also the author of Training Wheels: How a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Road Trip Jump-Started My Search for a Fulfilling Life.

1 Nagy, J. (January 28, 2013). The seven-year itch: Fact or fiction? The Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jennifer-nagy/the-sevenyear-itch-fact-o_b_2443171.html

2 Edmonds, M. Is there such a thing as the seven-year itch? How Stuff Works. Retrieved from http://health.howstuffworks.com/relationships/marriage/seven-year-itch.htm

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Your Age in Jiu-Jitsu Years

Last week, I turned 30. That puts me at more than 10 years in the sport, maybe 12 years if you count watching Cesar Gracie DVDs and fighting my friends in the backyard as training.

A lot changes in 10 years. Beyond the normal existential crisis of getting older, aging in jiu-jitsu is a nuanced challenge. I’ve never been a super athlete, but what my body was able to do at 20 is very different from what my body can do at 30. No more rubber guard. Heck, I can’t do a triangle choke without my knees exploding. But accumulating a collection of injuries isn’t the hardest part of aging in jiu-jitsu years.

One of the things the community doesn’t tell you when they throw around quotes like “A black belt is a white belt that never quit” or “How long does it take the average person to get a black belt? The average person won’t get a black belt” is that you have to find a way to cope with a rapidly evolving sport and a revolving door of training partners. Inside the gym—training on the same mats boxed in by the same four walls—the sense of time gets away from you, and then it hits you all at once like a freight train.

Let me give you a concrete example. 9 years ago I moved to Hilo, Hawaii to train at the BJ Penn Academy, and that adventure became the subject of my first book, The Cauliflower Chronicles. Last week, I went back to the Big Island and walked my wife through many of the places and the stories that she had heard me talk about for years. Over sushi, we talked with an old training partner (local Hilo guy) of mine about the gym, the coaches, and mutual jiu-jitsu friends.

If you’ve trained for more than a few years, you know how this conversation goes:

  • Yeah, that guy moved away.
  • This guy disappeared one day and no one has heard from him.
  • This other dude trains sometimes but nowhere near as much as he used to.
  • He got a new job.
  • He had kids.
  • He got hurt and called it quits.

Walking back into the BJ Penn Academy after 9 years and seeing the place where I spent 3 to 4 hours a day, 5 to 6 days a week, underscored what has become a powerful truth for me: The physical idea of a gym as a place is mostly irrelevant. What makes a gym feel like home are the people in it. At the BJ Penn Academy, everything was familiar. Sure some equipment had been moved since I was there last and they had gotten a new set of mats, but my experience as a student there is a unique time capsule of a certain set of instructors and a certain set of training partners all existing at a very specific time in the sport.

To me, this is nostalgia at its worst, and it can ruin your enjoyment of jiu-jitsu.

As soon as you start thinking about “the golden age” or “the good ol’ days” you establish an entirely unreasonable expectation of what your current training should be like. You will never be able to recreate the standard for jiu-jitsu perfection—the style of classes, the training partners, the instructors, your own physical ability—that you build up in the Fortress of Solitude in your mind. Life is simply too fluid for that, and jiu-jitsu doubly-so.

You will change. Your gym will change. Your training partners will change. There’s no escaping it, but you also shouldn’t let your love for how things used to be poison your enjoyment of the sport today. In my mind, you have to do the following:

  • Take responsibility for your training and structure it in a way that is realistic for your life while also giving you the joy that a hobby should. This will change overtime, so you probably need to check-in with yourself every year or so. Maybe you move away from competing and spend more time teaching and just playing with technique (that was my journey).
  • Take your role in your gym environment seriously, especially as you move deeper into veteran status. Yes, it sucks that your original class of training partners is all but gone, but you can make new friends and make the gym feel welcoming so that the latest round of new students can have the same enjoyment that you did.
  • Accept change but also be willing to make change. Some changes are good, some bad, and some neutral. It’s on you to be objective in your own evaluation, which means stepping back and deciding if you are judging a situation unfairly or are actually seeing a real problem. If you identify a change as bad (and do so fairly), you have a responsibility to respond or to find a solution so that you don’t end up wallowing in misery. This takes practice because most change in the gym is just generic neutral change—people come; people go.

These are challenges that I’m still learning to handle, and if I come up with some new insights, I’ll be sure to let you know. I also welcome your own insights into aging in the sport and how to keep your love for the art fresh and consistent.

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Make Mistakes

I played three different sports throughout high school – wrestling, track, and football – and I was fortunate to have amazing coaches in all three. Our football games (the kind with egg-shaped ball for our non-US readers) were on Friday night. On Monday, we reviewed footage of the game as a team.

During one of our film study sessions, we analyzed our opponent’s scoring plays from the last game. A new formation had confused one of our defensive players and he “froze up,” unsure where to go, and he stood still for a moment too long, reacting too late, and giving the other team enough space to score. Our coach said, “I’d rather have you make a mistake at full speed than hesitate. If you go the wrong way, we can correct that. If you stand still, we cannot.” This lesson remains true for BJJ.

Being unsure of where to go in BJJ is normal. The amount of positions in BJJ can be overwhelming, and the number of positions only continues to grow. It is normal to see lower belts completely stop when they get to an unfamiliar position.

One of the fastest ways to get better is to go the “wrong way” a few times. BJJ can be self-correcting this way. How many times did you get triangled as white belt before you realized what “both arms in or both arms out” meant? Stopping and refusing to move because you are afraid of making a mistake only slows down your development. If you go the wrong way and end up getting “punished” for trying, you learn an important lesson: don’t do that again.

Another aspect is when upper belts overdeveloped their “spider sense,” like the super power that lets Spider-Man know he's in imminent danger. Many times I’ve rolled with purple and brown belts that would be doing great early in our roll only to slow down and turtle up inside my guard because they knew I was setting them up, or felt it was a trap. Again, the answer here is to keep working through it. Can you reset the grips and start your pass again, can you back out, can you switch to a different pass? You have options, and most times stopping will only make matters worse as your opponent can just keep working whatever got you into trouble in the first place.

A final aspect I wanted to touch on is when you are on offense. Maybe you are in closed guard and are working on your triangles, but are shy about throwing your legs up. Or you are on your feet and hesitating on shooting that double leg. Fear of failing is scary, but you have to be at peace with failing a few times. Eventually you will figure out the timing and things will begin to work. But if you don’t attempt them, they will never improve.

So I invite you to start the year by failing. Whenever you get into situations you are not familiar with, try to work through them. Take some chances on a new technique you are working on. Try to pass that really tricky purple belt’s guard. You will be better for it on the long run.

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Adding Spice to Your Game

In the Brazilian jiu-jitsu world the word “fundamentals” is often said reverently, and for good reason. There are many benefits to having a crushing mount, excellent closed guard, or perfect bridges. The classic BJJ progression of attaining top position through a sweep or takedown, then passing the guard to a dominant position and then finding a submission is an effective game plan. While you should have an appropriate ability to play that basic game per your belt level, there is also a benefit in investing time toward techniques or positions not often considered traditional or fundamental.

Wrestling coaches will talk about an addition to your core game as having a “bag of tricks” to reach into when there is only a minute left in a match and you’re down on points. Developing a skill set that is off the beaten path not only serves as a backup for when your “A-game,” it is fun as well.

There is a whole set of submissions I personally think of as “gimmick” submissions. This is not a way to put them down, but simply because they normally only work once and after that the counter or prevention is so easy and obvious that the technique is unlikely to work again on that same opponent. As an example, I put most of the submissions executed from the bottom of side control in this category. I have most certainly been tapped by some in my career, but I was able to adjust my game to take many of those submissions off the table very quickly. These “gimmick” moves are valuable because they thrive on surprise and thus can be a good addition to a “bag of tricks,” but these aren’t really moves to build an entire game on.

There are however far more reliable and repeatable attacks that you can mix into a bread-and-butter game to give it bit of variance. Some examples include:

While hardly considered exotic anymore, rolling back attacks are an excellent extra option for attacking a tight defense. Having a few rolling attacks from several different top positions is a good way to keep an opponent off balance during a match.

Leg locks are very much in vogue right now, and adding a few lower body attacks to your game can make you a significantly more dangerous grappler. Learning how to enter into a leg entanglement after escaping from a bad position can allow you go from down in a match to winning by submission in an instant.

The crucifix is a very viable alternative to the traditional back control. While you will not get your 4 points in jiu-jitsu scoring rules, the crucifix actually provides more offensive options as you can attack the neck and arm simultaneously. It might actually fill a technical gap that exists between your back attack game and your turtle attacking game.

For white and blue belts, the process of finding and integrating these twists can be challenging. The first place to look for some spice is your instructor. Every upper belt develops a personal game that can divert from the classic takedown/sweep-pass-submit blueprint. At the highest levels of sport jiu jitsu, the current metagame of guard play is to sweep directly to the back, bypassing the need to deal with an opponent's guard all together. Nearly every school with a competition-focused class will teach techniques that feed into this particular twist on the classic jiu-jitsu game plan. This is a widely taught variation, and all instructors have their own personal tricks and positions they are eager to pass on to their students.

Another source for twists are seminars. Learning from different instructors will expose students to new perspectives. There are also YouTube and video instructionals that can be excellent sources when looking for new aspects to add to one’s game.

These twists on the traditional path are what give an individual game their personality and make grappling fun. The best route is to experiment and see what fits into your personal game. These small additions will not only bring their own benefit but also make your core game more effective as well.

About the Author: T.P. Grant

T.P. Grant has written for Bloody Elbow, FloGrappling, and FloCombat. He is a brown belt with Team Redzovic and dabbles in Sambo and Judo as well.

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[Video] Solo Drills: Horizontal Movements

Can you ever have enough solo grappling drills? I don't think so. That's why I filmed my favorite horizontal hip movements for you.

Detailed explanations for each drill demonstrated in the video:

Shrimping

The classic, universal BJJ warm-up drill. It goes by many names: shrimping, hip escapes, elbow escapes, ebi, eep 'scapes. Let's make sure you're doing it right.

  1. Lay flat on your back with your knees bent, feet on the floor and elbows bent, hands by your face.
  2. Plant one foot firmly and turn to the opposite side.
  3. Lift your hip by pressing your foot down and going up on to your shoulder.
  4. Shoot your hips back as you fold at the waist.
  5. Tuck your bottom knee up to your chest so it's not left behind.

Tip: Imagine a line on the floor under your shoulders. Your hips should scoot back that far.

Bad shrimping #1

This is usually caused by trying to extend and push the leg away, rather than planting the foot and shooting the hips back. Focus on lifting the hips up and back instead of pushing your foot away.

Bad shrimping #2

This is caused by laying flat and not turning your side and bending at the hips.Turn on your side more so you can put your weight into your shoulder and bend on the hips.

Sideways shrimping

This are my favorite way to practice shrimping since it mimics side control escapes better because the head and shoulders also move backwards.

  1. Turn somewhat on your side and plant both feet.
  2. Bring your hips, feet, or shoulders back (you can start with any one).
  3. If you brought your shoulders back, then bring your feet back, then your hips.
  4. Find a rhythm where your weight shifts between each of those body parts to free up the others to move backwards.

Circle shrimping

Similar to sideways, but with less backwards head and shoulder movement.

Circle walk

Not truly shrimping, but useful for moving around on your back to find better angles to escape.

  1. Turn to one side and plant both feet.
  2. Walk your feet (without crossing them) either forwards or backwards.
  3. After a few steps, go flat to your back but continue to walk in the same direction.

This movement become useful in certain escapes and reversals, like the "shovel" movement used in some half guard sweeps.

Reverse shrimping

  1. Laying on your back, do a side crunch to bring your shoulder closer to your feet.
  2. Lift your hips and pull yourself towards your heels as you shoulder walk.
  3. Throw your arms overhead to mimic tossing someone off you.

Tip: The key to this is shoulder walking from side to side as you use your legs to help out.

Hip skips

  1. Lay down, then angle off 45 degrees from the path you want to travel.
  2. Plant your outside foot and get on to the shoulder nearest the center line.
  3. Hop and swing your hips over the imaginary line.
  4. Repeat in the opposite direction.

Tips: You can also use the inside leg by turning the pinky toe side of your foot into the mat (this way is often harder to do). A good hip skip will have you "swinging" back and forth on your shoulders without your butt touching the ground much.

Backwards shoulder walks

Beginners often do this by accident when trying to shrimp. The movement is good to know but not when you're doing it by accident.

  1. Roll your shoulders from side to side to walk them backwards.
  2. Walk your feet in time with your shoulders.

Sit-up escape (tucking elbow)

  1. Shrimp like normal, but as your weight goes into your shoulder, tuck your elbow under you.
  2. Rock back on your elbow and shrimp again.
  3. Sit all the way up and get to your palm as you scoot backwards.

Sit-up escape (wide elbow)

Like the last one, but this time swing your arm out side to get on to your elbow.

Sit-up escape (crunch to elbow)

You skip shrimping by using a quick crunch to get to your elbow.

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